Sex and the Poltergeist – Part One


The following article was first published in the ASSAP magazine Seriously Strange 147 Spring/Summer 2015 (p.30-31). I have added a short bibliography, but otherwise the article is as originally published. You can join ASSAP at http://www.assap.ac.uk if interested in this sort of thing. Part 2 will follow…

“Are we living in a land where sex and horror are the new gods?” So sings Holly Johnson on Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s pounding 1985 hit Two Tribes – YouTube. Well you can see why he might ask the question; sex and horror are staples of the cinema, and at the point that record came out Britain had experienced a moral panic over ‘video nasties’.

Now of course we are jaded – films like Hostel, Saw and The Human Caterpillar are described as torture porn, and sex and horror are still tightly entangled. It’s nothing new – The Creature from the Black Lagoon poster (1954) is a classic of the B Movie genre that exploits sex and horror in a more innocent way, but the two entwine back through theatre,to the early novels where the Gothic is all about sex and horror.

So does Art imitate Life? According to most of the ghosthunters I know, yes. After all, many of us have encountered cases like the ladies who believe ghosts are having sex with them, or the chap who believed he was attacked by a  Succubus – he said incubus, but I think he meant the female variant – through to groping ghosts or their more pleasant cousins the incredibly beautiful phantom, beloved of older folklore collections where no phantom is ever plain or homely.

Occasionally one is able to help someone – if you spontaneously orgasm while lying down, it is probably worth seeing your GP, because there is a condition that causes it, and it is best to get it treated no matter how satisfying the symptoms! In other cases one just has to shrug and explain that the experience reported may be sleep paralysis (a convenient place-holder, though the actual physiology of the experience remains mysterious) or possibly psychological, but there are some places where even the boldest ghost hunter can not take their EMF meter, and a clients bed with them is one of them!

It is worth noting however that you are most likely to see a ghost at home, in your own bed according to all survey research, and yet when I try and sell ghost nights where I just come around and sleep with you no one buys tickets. Oh well, one tries…

So while a tiny percentage of cases a paranormal investigator is called upon to look at involve sexual themes, there is one kind of haunting that always seems to be associated in the popular mind, and indeed among many ‘experts’, with sex, or developing sexuality. I refer of course to the poltergeist. In the 1970’s one North American researcher joked he had a scale of charges to seduce your daughter: time and time again forty years later I read things like “there is always a young woman going through puberty associated with poltergeists” or “poltergeists never occur except around teenage girls” or “sexual frustration and powerful emotions are invariably associated with the poltergeist”. If you hold to the agent theory, that a poltergeist has a human focus, well researchers tend to look for the younger women in the household. I’m guessing many of you watched the recent adaptation on Sky of This House is Haunted, Guy Lyon Playfair’s book on the Enfield poltergeist?

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get’s the voice right I’m happy!

Did you notice how, like the book, but even more so, the narrative focussed on the two girls, and Margaret’s puberty and Janet growing in to womanhood? We even get a scene in the bath featuring one of the girls first menses as I recall? In my recent look at the Enfield Case I came to focus on the boys – but they are almost missing from the narrative; one tragically died a few years later, and one was absent through many of the events at school, but seriously we will never understand Enfield till we look at the whole family, not just the girls. My gut feeling is Playfair and Grosse were on to something important, but I’m frustrated at times by the way the boys don’t feature much in the write up.

I’ve done it – in an early case, the teenage daughter seemed the obvious focus, and the fact she was a dancer and very attractive and articulate probably added to that, but eventually I came to think another family member represented the centre of events.

I have long noted that in much psychical research in the past the focus was on (attractive, vivacious, one might say alluring) young ladies. Eva C (she was a lesbian) and Baron Shrenck Notzing aside, time and time again we find accusations of romantic relationships between the older, powerful and usually well positioned man and the young, attractive and not so powerful female medium. Sir William Crookes and Florence Cook (or Katie King) are one example, and various accusations of sexual impropriety with her investigators floated around Mina Crandon, aka Margery, no matter how unjustified. These young ladies were tied up, probed and allowed to act in a

Alex Owen's The Darkened Room

Alex Owen’s The Darkened Room

manner that would not normally be possible for a woman – though Margery was maybe an exception, being a talented and strong willed woman before she dabbled in mediumship. One would need to write a detailed study of women, power and sexuality in the Victorian and Edwardian séance room, did it not already exist in the form of Alex Owen’s superb book The Darkened Room.

So what’s wrong with this? Surely the reason for all these young ladies being involved with physical and mental mediumship is because the phenomena occur around them, rather than as I seem to be suggesting because historically most psychical researchers have been ageing men, perhaps susceptible to the charms of the fairer sex? Are adolescent girls not the centre of most poltergeist cases?

It is admittedly hard to tell, but we have one tool we can use. In 1979 Alan Gauld and Tony Cornell published their magisterial work Poltergeists, in which they analysed 500 cases from across a huge range of time and place, subjecting them to factor analysis and then using a computer to see how various factors (case mainly nocturnal; phenomena occur outside; raps or knocking – that sort of thing) group together in a Cluster Analysis. If you own the book turn to pages 226 to 228 – if you don’t, head over to Amazon or similar and buy a copy. It is that good!

At first glance the data in the table seems to support the contention women are the primary agents. Out of the cases where an “agent” who seemed to be at the centre of the phenomena was identified, in 143 cases (29%) were female, and 54 (11%) were male. (In the remaining 60% of cases no clear agent can be found).

Gauld and Cornell however realised not all their cases were evidentially equal, and they analysed a subgroup of their cases with stronger testimony, comprising of just under half (247) of the cases (column 6 if you have the book open). There we have 12% male agents (30 cases), and 34% female (85 cases).

So we can at least put one myth to bed – while there appear to be a roughly 4:1 split in favour of women in these cases, a sizeable minority revolve around men, as for example was the case in Julio in the Miami gift warehouse poltergeist reported by Bill Roll. Given the tendency for researchers to look at the women first, this may possibly explain some of the difference.

So what about the age of the agent? Luckily Gauld and Cornell provide us with figures for two categories – “agent under 20” and “agent 20 or over”. 30% were under 20; 8% over 20 (in the higher testimony cases it was 37% and 9%). In short we see again a preponderance of young people, and in maybe 75% of cases a teenager features – but a good quarter do not. Now there is a complicating factor – because assuming there is a difference – and I am on record as doubting that strongly – Gauld & Cornell’s data contains some cases that can better be characterised as hauntings rather than poltergeists. Indeed they did an analysis that separates very groups by cluster, and found some haunt type ghost cases, some classic poltergeists, and a group somewhere in

Alan Gauld

Alan Gauld, c.1997

between. I ran a cluster analysis using Becky Smith’s PhD data using NVIVO, looking at her “poltergeist type cases” and I did not find a gender bias difference between polts and hauntings – but it COULD occur in the Gauld and Cornell data set – I have no way of telling. Unfortunately Becky Smith disproved from her data set the pilot study suggestion that men forget these incidents faster so are less likely to report them than women. So what is going on?

I don’t know. Historically women were perhaps more likely to be at home more than men, as were younger people. This may well account for mush of the bias, for with a few exceptions like the Miami warehouse very few poltergeists seem to manifest at work. Given they are domesticated entities, who dwell within your homes, maybe that explains the sex differential in the data?

So given my doubts about whether adolescent women, or even young women, feature heavily in the majority of poltergeist cases, and that that was proving hard to establish by statistics, I resorted to the only thing I could think of, and read every account I could find of poltergeists. I’m still doing it now, and my infrequently updated blog Polterwotsit is the place to follow my findings, but I guess I need to open the floor to other researchers, and ask – is there a link between sex and the poltergeist, and if so what is it?

Over to you, the readers of this blog – what are your thoughts?

REFERENCES

Gauld, A; Cornell, A.D.; (1979) Poltergeists, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Owen, A (1989) The Darkened Room: Women,Power and Spiritualism in Late Victorian England, Virago, London.

Roll, W.G., Burdick, D., & Joines, W.T. (1973) Radial and tangential forces in the Miami poltergeist. Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research, 67, 267-281.

Roll, W.G; (2004);The Poltergeist; Paraview; New York

Smith, B. (2013) A Century of Apparitions (unpublished PhD thesis)

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Would you buy me a pint? Halloween 2015; or the Return of Polterwotsit


Well it’s Halloween 2015, and Polterwotsit has risen from the grave. I’ve had a long illness, I’ve been working on my books, and I have spent six months trying to get fit again after the illness and the books – neither are good for you.😉 And now I’m going to try something I never actually do – ask for money!🙂

I’ve never been any good at making money, and despite a long time in paranormal TV I never made any there either in the end. Still  I have managed to do 9 charity events in the last week, and have raised a lot of money for good causes, so it suddenly occurred to me – maybe I could make some money writing or talking to stuff.  (Oddly this realisation was at the very same moment I went to the cupboard and found it bare. Hunger is a great motivator. I have since eaten a sandwich, but still…) ghost

Now my health is still not perfect, and I have turned down SKY news already (I promised to do two more charity events tonight and honour prevailed over the chance to annoy the nation on TV) and no one really wants me to work for them, even if I was allowed to (the govt. has declared me sick. I guess I must be!) so I guess I may have to write or do  more Paranormal TV.

Now I have done Paranormal TV in the past, and I was dreadful.  Really, really dreadful. I was in Prestbury, purportedly the most haunted village in the UK last night and I filmed this on my phone.

Yes I’m a coward – but then

Somehow I don’t think the BBC are going to want me to replace Top Gear. Of course I was always utterly rubbish on TV – here is me maybe ten years ago or more —

or of course where it all started, Thetford Priory

Anyway here is the deal. I want some money. Now it’s Halloween tonight, and some of you might be willing to buy me a pint? Now of course I don’t drink – not as people always seem to assume because I have a problem – nope, I gave up booze because Polly and I were dirt poor and I simply could not afford it in the early 90’s. Paranormal TV really did not pay. (I have a friend who is a well known ghosthunter who appeared in a glossy magazine, and they parked a couple of Porches with personalised number plates outside his house for the shoot, but sadly took them away afterwards. To be fair he does have a lovely house! My total net earnings from twenty years in Paranormal TV would probably not buy a mid-price bicycle or a second hand small car, you get the picture?)

I have no idea how much a pint costs, I’m guessing £2 for a decent beer, but it may be £2.50 by now, at least in London? It was 75p when I last drank.) So how about rather than buying me a pint, by going to Paypal and donating £2.50 instead? If anyone wants to, I will spend the money on myself – on travel, books, food and coffee – but for every £2.50 I get, that is each donor, I will produce one solid piece of research or something like a review or an interview with an expert, and bung it up on Polterwotsit. If we get 12 donors, that would be an article a month for a year.

I don’t expect many of you can afford it, but hey, it’s worth a try. I’m out tonight raising money for genuinely good causes – but if you want to help a rather less needy and vital cause, but perhaps further poltergeist research this year, well buy me a pint – or rather don’t, but donate, and I promise to namecheck you in your article. Give me £3 and you can ask for it on a particular topic, if I can possibly write about it😀

I don’t want to be rich, but I did want to eat and have coffee and milk, but above all I want to know someone actually values my paranormal research efforts. So this Halloween, why not sponsor an old fat Dane? If you do Paypal me at chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com

If you don’t, matters not, there are much better causes in this world of ours right now – but I’m trying to sell you something, even if the product is my rubbish writing, not just asking for help, no matter how much I may need it!😉

Thanks guys

CJ x

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The SPR & ASSAP: time to merge?


IntroductionASSAP FB logo

The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena (ASSAP) was founded in 1981 as the result of dissatisfaction felt by a few members of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR).  This is ancient history and it is not the present intention to rehearse the issues which created that rupture.  Suffice it to say that the two organisations have existed in parallel for over thirty years, attracting different, though frequently overlapping, memberships but generally standing aloof from one other.  Now that aloofness is dissolving, with each promoting the other’s activities on social media, and there is more interaction than has been the case in the past.  With this improvement in relations, the time has come to ask: why not merge to form a single body?spr_logolowres

The first response might be to wonder why they should merge when they have such strong individual identities and do well on their own.  The answer is that they have strengths which are complementary, rather than antagonistic, so that both sets of members would gain from unification.  Another question is that if some members were dissatisfied with the SPR in 1981, could the same happen in the future, leading to yet more friction and possibly a fresh split?  The answer to that is that the current SPR is a long way from its 1981 incarnation, and fully aware of how traumatic such a rupture is in the life of an organisation.

The following sections attempt to answer some more of the questions that will naturally occur in a discussion of the merits of bringing ASSAP and the SPR together.  It is to be hoped that these will generate debate, which may produce further questions.

What are be the benefits of a merger?

The obvious one is a bigger combined membership, with economies of scale and greater resources.  A larger size should increase its punch and authority, both within the field and among the wider public.

The SPR has dedicated premises and a paid full-time administrator which would improve the ad-hoc administration experienced by ASSAP members.  The volunteers who run the latter do a tremendous job, but a dedicated office function has to be more efficient.  ASSAP members would have access to the range of benefits already enjoyed by SPR members.  These include four numbers of both the magazine Paranormal Review and the peer-reviewed Journal (and occasional Proceedings); free access to London lectures, reduced rates to bi-annual study days and the annual conference; a permanent library, archives of international significance, and free access to an online library of publications back to 1882.  ASSAP officers could be brought into the SPR Council structure by means of co-optation.

In terms of research, ASSAP has an energetic and enthusiastic membership, and this injection of energy would be welcome in the SPR.  ASSAP’s spontaneous case network would reinforce the existing SPR Spontaneous Cases Committee and its emphasis on training would be useful in stimulating interest in investigation among SPR members.  A larger combined membership, and therefore increased income, would enable an expansion of the amount given to fund research activities.

Education, a core function for both the SPR and ASSAP, would be improved as well.  Integrating the libraries and archives would provide an enhanced resource (the new SPR premises, bigger than the previous rented accommodation, providing the required space for ASSAP’s books), and ASSAP’s records would find a permanent home.  A single set of periodicals, with a larger circulation than either achieves singly, would attract a wider range of writers.

There would also be benefits in geographical reach: the SPR is often seen as London-centric, whereas ASSAP is successful regionally.  With a combined membership around the country there would be motivation for regional activities, enabling members outside London to participate in their localities.  This is an opportunity to decentralise some of the SPR’s functions, with more grassroots involvement.

What about differences in scope?

The subject-matter of the two organisations is not identical, that of ASSAP covering a wider area than that of the SPR.  ASSAP members might legitimately complain that a merger is likely to squeeze out particular interests, such as ufology, earth mysteries and folklore.  This is not necessarily an impediment, even though such topics in general fall outside the scope of the SPR.   In these days of easy electronic communication it is straightforward for sub-groups to pursue their interests.  The new SPR website will make it possible for members to keep in contact with each other easily, so that even though say ufology is not a significant element of psychical research, those with such an interest can still interact, while enjoying the benefits of their SPR membership.

Membership fees

A stumbling block is that ASSAP’s fees have always been significantly less than the SPR’s.  The standard membership rates are noticeably different, with ASSAP’s being a quarter of that charged by the SPR.  This reflects the different set-ups of the organisations, ASSAP’s lower volunteer-based costs compared to the SPR’s permanent paid staff and building expenses.  ASSAP members would hopefully consider the broader range of benefits enough to justify an increase, but perhaps there could be a transitional arrangement, with incremental rises over several years for existing ASSAP members to bring the two sets into line.  The SPR membership rates are very reasonable, and ASSAP members would hopefully see that the increase was justified.  It is most unlikely that there could be any reduction in the SPR rates to bring them closer to ASSAP’s.

Events

On the other hand, ASSAP members would undoubtedly baulk at the costs of the SPR conference and study days (as do some SPR members).  With ASSAP’s expertise in mounting economically priced study days (notably the extremely popular ‘Seriously…’ series), there is no reason why these could not continue, augmented by the presence of SPR members who had never attended an ASSAP event before.  The status of some of these, such as conferences on vampires and witchcraft, would be problematic under the SPR banner but these could be run in collaboration with other organisations, such as the London Fortean Society; the SPR has participated in joint events with the Scientific and Medical Network so there is precedent for such an approach.

A concern which has to be acknowledged is that the desire to organise events might diminish, with those who had previously volunteered for ASSAP not wanting to make the effort on the grounds that conferences of all kinds should be arranged at the centre.  It is doubtful that the SPR office would be willing to shoulder the extra administrative load.

What about the name?

The name could be a sticking point for ASSAP members.  There is no easy way that the names SPR and ASSAP could be combined, and there would be overwhelming resistance within the SPR to altering an internationally-recognised name that has been in existence since 1882.  The most likely outcome is that the SPR would retain its name, but with ‘incorporating The Association for the Scientific Study of Anomalous Phenomena’ on its literature – something that might not appeal to ASSAP members whose first loyalty is to that organisation.  This could be a major obstacle, but one that might be overcome if ASSAP members were convinced that the advantages outweighed the loss.

Mechanisms for reaching an agreement

This article has set out some of the pros and cons of a merger.  Bringing the two together would not be quick as there are a number of steps before that could happen.  In addition to a general debate among both sets of members there would have to be an initial discussion by the officers within the two organisations; a formal process of consultation with members; meetings between the two sets of officers to resolve any contentious issues; then there would have to be a vote, with a criterion for a yes vote agreed in advance.

Conclusion

This long after the event, most of those interested in our subject are not bothered about why ASSAP came into being.  What they want to see is a thriving organisation or organisations that can deliver the means necessary for them to pursue that interest.  Many join both with no sense of conflict, and a number of those who established ASSAP continued to take part in the SPR’s activities, clearly seeing no contradiction in belonging to both.  There is no doctrinal reason why the respective memberships should not combine and work together, and the practical difficulties could surely be overcome with goodwill on both sides.  In delivering their services the two organisations are capable of existing independently, but their combination would strengthen the voice for psychical research.  If that is our aim, then the case for coming together to our mutual benefit, and that of the field, is a strong one.

This article is being published jointly on the authors’ blogs, and publicised on social media, in the hope that it will generate a constructive exchange of views.  The authors are both members of the two organisations, but are not writing in any official capacity.  They welcome feedback of all types, which should be sent to tom.ruffles[at]yahoo.co.uk, in order to gauge levels of support for and opposition to the proposal.  This has to be a bottom-up process, with all opinions aired.

Tom Ruffles and C J Romer

10 October 2015

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Review: The Enfield Haunting, Sky Living Drama – Part One


So I actually watched it, only two days late! Firstly a note. Enfield produced a crop of iconic images, especially those by Graham Morris. I’m not reproducing them here. You have probably already seen them, and I don’t own the copyrights, and respect the owner’s IP, so sorry.🙂 If the owner of the famous images reads this and is OK for me to license them for use in the review, drop me a line.

Polterwotsit is a blog about real poltergeist phenomena, not fictional ones, but clearly the two can inform each other. The new Sky Living drama about Enfield has attracted considerable media coverage, and from what I have seen so far good reviews. If it were just a fiction I would never get round to watching it – but it is (very notionally) based upon Guy Lyon Playfair’s This House Is Haunted and hence the Enfield Poltergeist. As such I guess I’d better say something. I have actually reviewed fiction before on my personal blog – you can find my review of the first Paranormal Activity film here.

“Everyone’s a critic” they say, implying that everyone who can’t perform or write themselves allows themselves to make harsh judgments of those who can. It is all too true in my case – as an actor I am appalling, as a screenwriter – well I’m not doing much of it now am I? – and as a writer, er yeah, ’nuff said. I did get an Asst. Director’s credit once when a real director taught me a bit and let me “call the shots”, but what I know about making film or drama can be written on the back of a postage stamp. If you want a considered review based on real knowledge of the paranormal on film go ask Tom Ruffles, he’s your man.

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; good actor though!

Still here is what I thought – the good, the bad, and the so ugly I twice paused it and walked away from the TV to go clear my head and stop being annoyed and shouty before I could continue…

Let me start by saying that as a representation of the events at Enfield, at least as depicted by Guy in This House Is Haunted, this drama is about as much accurate as Cameron’s movie Titanic is to the events described in A Night to Remember and the actual sinking of the Titanic. 

To justify that analogy – the dramatist, Joshua St. Johnston has pulled out strands of story, and woven together a drama, and set it against the backdrop of Enfield – and the sets are loving reconstructions of the 1970’s, with almost perfect verisimilitude in set, costume, and feel just as Titanic gets the ship and costume almost perfect.

I lived in a council house 1981 to 1987, very similar to the one the Hodgsons lived at – and it was pretty realistic, though we lacked slugs and snails and ours was in much better structural shape. Note to Producers – poor does not mean dirty. The pipes looked right, but a lots of working class homes are pretty immaculate. I like the was it was handled here – looked right, and the reconstruction of the girls bedroom was almost perfect. I think the Monopoly set on the wardrobe is a 1982 edition, but otherwise almost perfect set dressing.

So it looks right, the names are right, the period items are right, the atmosphere is 77 – even down to a clip of a famous Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em episode on the TV – the lighting is almost Dogme 95, and the claustrophobic shots build atmosphere – all excellent. It’s a fantastic effort; the Viewmaster-G series toy looked right, and I think the Ker-Plunk set was the correct era too.

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

That’s the Good. The Bad now. And here is a confession…

I’m possibly not the target audience for this drama. I am going to guess that less that 50%, maybe less than a couple of million of the viewers of this show, will have ever tried to make sense of what happened at Enfield, written about it, talked to any of those there or describe themselves as “academic parapsychologists” on the dole forms.  I may be in the 20% or so of the audience who have actually read This House is Haunted, and maybe the few thousand who actually have read much on poltergeists. And as far as I know, I’m the only viewer who has a Poltergeist blog, cos this is the only one. Therefore, as this is not a programme made for pretentious nerds like me, I would be an arse to review it. I shall do so anyway, but bear it in mind.

I saw that the Telegraph or someone did a review calling it The Good Life with ghosts. I haven’t read it yet – I prefer to form my own opinions – but I think they have something. There is nothing of Margot & Jerry about it, or the Goods – but in a sense it is about an assault on hegemony, common sense of a society. However The Good Life, like Keeping Up Appearances, The Upper Hand, and pretty much every other 70’s and 80’s sit com was about something we barely understand now – social class. Well we pretend not to, we live in a classless society, but hell it’s rough on lads like me who aspire to rise above their station I promise you. I did pretty well, but like so many of the working class intellectuals of my generation, or maybe in my case pseudo-intellectuals, I ended up broke living in poverty on benefits in a house full of books.

Right now I get you don’t want a Marxist discussion of the base/superstructure model, and what economies generate poltergeists.🙂 My point is that the 80’s and Thatcher changed so much that unless you were in the 70’s it is hard to imagine the class system, and how pervasive and taken for granted class assumptions were until maybe the early 80’s. And here is the first failing – while The Good Life was about two middle class couples, one of whom dropped out and lived what would not be recognised as a perfectly mainstream organic urban farming middle class existence; the Enfield Haunting has to negotiate class distinctions in 70’s England.

So let’s start with the Hodgsons – plainly working class, poor but respectable. Dad has left. So what is the single most important class indicator for a production like this? Accent. North London accents are divided by class; way more so then but now, and Enfield has an accent. Now luckily they avoided the obvious trap of Cockney – but the family just sound all wrong, shattering the illusion for me.  Eleanor Worthington-Cox sounds middle class, perhaps Cheshire (I’ll probably find out she grew up in Enfield now) and her brilliant performance as Janet is marred by an accent that would put her in the middle classes, not on a council estate in 1977. Now you can live on a council estate and talk posh – someone once said I did for instance, and I notoriously have  a “telephone voice” if someone calls me – but the accents of the family evoke a disconnect in terms of class and time and place. I guess you need fairly neutral accents for TV, but also I was surprised that the familiar diction of North London has gone – and even the choice of words feels wrong. “bleedin'” made far too few appearances. Are  there no North London child actors? Only Peggy really convinced by accent, and she looks like a middle class Oxo ad mum rather than a working class woman of the 1970’s. Still the families acting is superb, so all is good there!

Now as Becky says “this is TV” and Lisa “yes Chris it’s a drama, not a recreation”. Yeah fair point. I just felt stronger play on the language and class aspects would not have harmed the drama, though it may actually make younger viewers uncomfortable. People under 40 often seem uncomfortable talking about class.

mauriceNow it get’s harder for me; Spall and MacFadyen. Why? Because Maurice’s moustache and voice are totally wrong. I can do a pretty good impression of Maurice Grosse – I once dared to do it to his face, and he laughed, which was lucky as while a jolly and good natured chap he could blow up and explode in to harumphing rage if provoked.😉 However the moustache, and the voice, and a few mannerisms made Maurice pretty unique – and a bit eccentric. Spall has played it safe, by playing Maurice as a more respectable, slightly sad figure – I recall him more as a frenetically driven, sometimes angry, often laughing, usually interrupting kind of bloke – but I liked Maurice, who I knew a little, so I like Spall’s depiction – I just don’t recognise it. So for the 75% of viewers who never ate with Maurice, or talked politics with him – well you guys will have to make up your own minds. Just don’t confuse Maurice Grosse and Maurice Grosse, if you see what I mean. I guess that is true of any fictional depiction of a real person, but I can’t think of any I have seen.  Maurice is odd – because you take away his North London middle class accent – a self made millionaire I believe, Grosse was perhaps working class made good, but he a long away above the Hodgson’s socially.  One lovely tough is Grosse’s red sports car, spot on.

Guy Lyon Playfair likes the drama, and I can see why. The depiction of him is pretty good. Of course there is one of the scenes which lefts me infuriated soon after his character arrives. As I recall Grosse and Playfair were sitting together at a monthly SPR talk  on a Thursday night when the shout went out and they volunteered to go look.  For dramatic purposes that is completely changed here, and – well I’ll get to that in my rant under “the ugly” below. For now what we have to note is Guy is very upper middle class – I find him a little scary, as I find most Cambridge graduates. The depiction of his in this respect seems good – he was good looking, well educated, and knew about poltergeists. He also seems a little more cynical and harder to befriend that Maurice – I always wonder if I am inadvertently “using the wrong knife” round Guy, but we do not meet often these days as I have no money for SPR meetings or conference.😦 Guy also is extremely intelligent, a little belligerent when defending his case and while not a touch eccentric like Maurice, perhaps a little non-conformist. I like him from the few occasions we have met, but I’m a bit nervous of him, even by email!

The Ugly

There is a lot I actively dislike about the show. The biggest thing was early on, when Maurice and his wife take the call from the SPR (which of course never happened). There is a weird dream sequence in which it seems Maurice is looking at blood on a girl’s  head – I think Janet Grosse was 22 when she died, not a child, and her head injuries in the motorbike crash that killed her went a lot further than a bit of blood – but here the dramatist establishes Maurice was suffering “bad dreams” at the time of the case.

I know nothing of the sort to be true; I did speak to Maurice about his daughter’s death, well he told me, and he told most people – he was obviously very upset by it, and it was why he came to join the SPR – but I still don’t think bereavement effected him. Spall play’s Grosse as vulnerable – I recall him as a an energetic firebrand, but I could be wrong. I was only an acquaintance of his- others should speak on this.   Still this is a drama so that is fine, and the author is cleverly creating multiple potential explanations. enfield2

So what annoyed me in this scene? After Maurice leaves the house, his wife Betty is seen making a mysterious phonecall and saying something like “Ray, I’ve got to see you”. She smiles – and I immediately got an uneasy feeling the implication was that she was having an affair. Now this seems a nonsense from what I know – it serves a narrative purpose, to show that Maurice pretty much dedicated all his time day and night to the case – but Maurice was a family man and he and Betty were devoted to each other. Maurice has a son, Richard – perhaps that is the mysterious Ray, or maybe Ray is a family physician? The storyline will be resolved in the second or third episode I explain innocently enough, but it struck a nerve because of the David Baddiel incidents.

Baddiel wrote a novel featuring a fictional character called Maurice Grosse who has an affair –

GHOSTBUSTER Maurice Grosse did not see the funny side when he read a novel by comic David Baddiel with a storyline about an adulterer called Maurice Grosse.

Now the 79-year-old para-psychologist is suing the Fantasy Football star for libel – and demanding £10,000 damages.

In his book, Time for Bed: A Novel About Sleep, Sex and Skewed Clocks, Baddiel describes a psychic investigator called Maurice Grosse who lives in High Barnet, North London, and runs away with a married woman. The non-fictional Mr Grosse, who lives in Muswell Hill, North London, said: ‘I’m 79 and I’ve been happily married for 55 years.”

They settled out of court, and Grosse characteristically gave his winnings to charity. After he died however, Baddiel used the character again in another novel (and film) The Infidel. I am diplomatically going to avoid saying what I think of this move by David Baddiel…

So with that background, I think the screenwriter should have stayed well clear of teaser storylines about Maurice’s (as far as I know extremely happy) marriage. I was annoyed a bit, and went for a walk to calm down. I’m sure episodes 2 & 3 will as I say dismiss this but…

And then the portrayal of Maurice, and the bond between him and Janet, well it just goes a bit far. He comes over as a kindly uncle, all perfect, but did he sniff that hairbrush? We are viewing this in the wake of the historic sexcrimes investigations of Operation Yewtree and things that were totally innocent often seem dodgy to us in this cynical and perverted age. For a moment i felt uneasy – was Maurice being depicted as a perv, to set up a storyline where at the end of the evidence we learn about his daughters death and his  behaviour is explained? I’m probably too defensive of Maurice, but I felt uncomfortable. Nothing about him was in the slightest sleazy as far as I can recall!🙂 Quite the opposite.

The third  thing that really annoyed me was the whole Playfair versus Grosse set up.  As noted above, the two had previously met at an SPR event or two, but only really got to know each other after they came to Enfield. In reality they both volunteered at the 4th August SPR 1977 meeting. Except in the drama Guy arrives at the house, and joins the investigation, and then forces Maurice briefly out, having talked some utter bilge (I assume) about being sent by Prof Beloff to stop Maurice and protect the good name of the SPR!  Would John Beloff have roared with laughter, or sued? I suspect the former, but it is a nonsense.

The SPR since its inception in 1882 has not held corporate opinions.  Members of the SPR may investigate cases, may have even been sent out by John Stiles and the Spontaneous Cases Committee, but they are investigating as private individuals and their opinions are there own, as the SPR does not hold collective opinions. If you don’t know much about the SPR ( http://www.spr.ac.uk ) you might want to have a quick look at this old blog piece of mind from my personal blog.  Whatever the case, I don’t think the SPR sent anyone to “shut down Enfield”. I may be wrong, but I very much doubt it, and it certainly was not Guy Lyon Playfair. Maybe a rivals dynamic is more interesting, and Guy is depicted in the role of all the Sceptics he had to answer, then and today, putting their critiques to Maurice, who refutes them. An interesting dramatic measure, making Guy Lyon Playfair the villain, but not what I understand happened. Both investigators were pretty self critical and sceptical, and I can’t imagine Guy rounding on Maurice with “I am the expert.” Good drama, don’t confuse it with the real dynamic. I think Guy here represents the other SPR members who came along and were woefully unimpressed, but “bandying the SPR name about?”. Really???

Holy Levitating Lyon Playfairs Batman!

The moment at the end of episode one where Guy is suddenly hurled to the ceiling by the poltergeist nearly became a major contribution to psychical research in its own right, in that it nearly killed me. I was eating a packet of crisps, and physically fell off the sofa crying with laughter. For a show about a poltergeist investigation – and it is about that rather than the poltergeist, the phenomena is firmly relegated to the background, with usually good but occasionally irritating sound – actually well done music but occasionally distracts rather than adds, blame the mix not the sound’s composer  I guess – indicating “this bit is spooky” the actual haunting effects are absolutely bollocks.  Janet sees an old man (is that Guy Lyon Playfair made up to look old and scary? You only see him for a second and I did wonder if he was playing a cameo!) through the Viewmaster toy – really? – the Mirror journalists are relegated to the role of barely adolescent wonks (they play a significant role in events) and the string of visiting experts seems boilded down to a cameo of what I guess are the guys from PYE.  The weird shot from Graham Morris showing the curtains blowing in turns in to a Hollywood horror movie sequence of the curtains strangling Janet…

The story is told higgledy piggledy, without regard for the   actual chronology of the phenomena, and while in places the phenomena are served well – the marbles which take the place of the marbles and Lego bricks that hit the Daily Mail guys scene is shot in such a way there is ambiguity about how it occurs, and if the kids chuck things, but seriously, the “creepy old man apparition” glimpsed through windows etc a la Mr Pipes feels more like a homage to Stephen Volk’s Ghostwatch than anything to do with Enfield, unless it is supposed to be the chap Vic Nottingham saw at the table? (You will look in vain for the Burcombes, the Nottinghams, or most of the others who came to Enfield in episode one. I guess introducing the girls and investigators enough – Peggy hopefully gets  screen-time more in episode 2, and Graham Morris too. WPC Heeps gets a mention – but the problem with this simplification for good screenwriting, reducing an endless list of characters to a handful who perform their narrative function, is it severely reduces the strength of the testimony, and some twonks will make up their mind on Enfield not from the people, physical evidence or written sources, but from this drama😉 Such people really exist, and I seem to meet them!😦 ).

You are not going to learn much about poltergeist phenomena from this – go to the book. Unbelievably Becky claims most people do not actually WANT TO learn about poltergeist phenomena(!!!), and if they did they might not try a Sky Living drama.😉 It’s like Lisa says “CJ, you simply don’t understand fiction and a good story: it’s entertainment”.  While a few phenomena were absolutely spot on – marbles stopping dead for instance – seriously, don’t confuse the real case (more dramatic at times) and the rather dodgy special effects here.

Overall

A few aspects of the case seemed a bit personal to drag out for a drama; the oldest boy Johnny sent off to an Approved School, the girls periods etc. I’m guessing Guy has good relations with the family and he approved the screenplay I believe; I was surprised to find I know a couple of people related to the current residents of the house, and I hope they are not being harassed by “ghosthunting kids” and that Sky Living make it worth their while. I’m not sure I’d want my childhood on primetime TV, but hey, that ain’t ever gonna happen so I can sleep easy.🙂

A good intelligent drama, as entertainment 7/10, mainly for good acting and great backdrops and period feel, but the script is not what I would have hoped for. I could not do anywhere near as well though, so bravo! to all involved.🙂 I am probably not the person to review this.😀

CJ x

QA

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Filed under Poltergeist Cases, Poltergeist Dramas, Poltergeist Investigations

Drama, Controversy and Confusion: The Legacy of The Enfield Poltergeist


Polterwotsit has been rather a dead letter for a couple if years now; Becky has completed her PhD, my ghost group GSUK has not met, and Parasoc has quietly disbanded. Ironically I have been just as busy, if not more so, as always in studying poltergeist cases, and as this is as far as I know the only poltergeist dedicated blog on the web I think it is time to revive it.

The spur has come from a new Sky Living drama based on the Enfield Poltergeist, which begins tomorrow (Sunday) night and my friend Hayley asking me to answer some questions to assist with her writing for her piece on the case in The Skeptic magazine.

Unfortunately my answers were rather longer than the whole piece, so obviously could not be used — so I ran them past Guy Lyon Playfair – I have no idea if he read them, but we chatted amicably by email –  and shall present them here.

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

This House is Haunted by Guy Lyon Playfair

Why are my opinions on a case that occurred a decade before I joined the SPR important? That may not be, probably aren’t — but I think if I can be taken as at least a little representative of the “next generation” of parapsychologists, my responses to Hayley’s questions may have some interest, and perhaps throw some light on the case for those whose interest is slightly more recent.

Obviously the real people to talk to are the family, and those who were there – Maurice is gone, but Guy still has plenty to say, and there is a vast amount of physical evidence that is not being studied.

This is not a primer to the case, or an introduction. It assumes some knowledge of what transpired, though even watching the drama might suffice, I don’t know I have not see it. (GLP seems to think it is good I’m relieved to say; that of course is not the same as “accurate” – accuracy is not usually a concern in drama!) If you haven’t read Playfair’s classic account of the case you should – This House is Haunted – and this Channel 4 documentary is superb too.

Anyway, here are my thoughts in response to Hayley’s questions…

Were the initial experiences significant/worthy of investigation?

A few years ago I made a calendar info-graphic of the case, showing the development of different symptoms, and compared them with those in the 500 cases collected by Gauld and Cornell from across 5 continents and many centuries for analysis in their 1979 book Poltergeists. Yes very much so…

The early part of the case is extensively detailed in GLP’s This House Is Haunted; the very first part of the case was recorded by BBC radio reporter Rosalind Morris who made several visits to the house in the period before the 45 minute broadcast on Radio 4 during The World This Weekend programme on September 11th 1977.

The case began on a quiet note, with two of the children’s beds shaking, which Peggy dismissed, but on the 30th August an unusual sound puzzled her enough to ask neighbour and builder Vic Nottingham in, who called the police.

WPC Carolyn Heeps saw a chair move, and it was clear the family were very distressed. WPC Heeps has always stuck to her statement “I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved. Absolutely convinced”.

The next day Peggy Hodgson claims she saw an extraordinary sight – a chest of drawers ‘shuffling’ towards her. The children were at this point apparently terrified “just screaming and screaming”.

By the 4th September the Nottingham’s has called the Daily Mirror – and after considerable persistence (having been sworn at and cut off) they convinced the Mirror to send reporters.
Douglas Bence and Graham Morris came over – Graham was the photographer. Channel Four have done parapsychology a favour by recently recording extensive candid interviews with the two men for the show Interview with a Poltergeist – and it is clear that both men still believe something absolutely extraordinary was happening at Enfield, before Grosse and Playfair arrived.

I regard the amount of testimony from those who were present in the earliest phase of Enfield to be unusually good, and it is hard to believe that reporters, by nature a cynical bunch, would have been easily deceived.

So yes, the case was in every respect worthy of investigation at this point: it stood to tell us more about poltergeist cases, and the family’s distress was extreme.

Is the eye-witness testimony of the police officer who saw a chair move considered better? Does it make a contribution to the case?

WPC Carolyn Heeps gave more than one statement. The police officers returned to the station and logged the call out; however the statements usually discussed are those given to Maurice Grosse in writing and dated 10th September, and the February 1978 statement to BBC Scotland.

In a later (1982) statement to Mary Rose Barrington there were discrepancies – but five years had elapsed, and if I have shown one thing beyond reasonable doubt in all my years in psychical research it is that contrary to the “flashbulb memory” and confabulation models of memories of paranormal experiences, they erode with time, like any experience, only becoming ‘fossilised’ to some extent by constant re-telling, but losing detail, not gaining it. 

The 1978 statement given to Scottish BBC television director Peter Lamont reads

“The chair was by the sofa, and I looked at the chair and I noticed it shook slightly. I can’t explain it any better, and it came off the floor oh, nearly a half inch I should say, and I saw it slide off to the right about three and a half to four feet before it came to rest…I’m absolutely convinced no one in that room touched that chair or went anywhere near it when it moved.

Absolutely convinced I checked to see whether or not it could have possibly slided on the floor. I placed a marble on the floor to see whether or not the marble would bear the same direction as the chair did and it didn’t; it did not at all. I checked for wires under the cushion of the chair – I find no explanation at all”.

The 1977 Statement from 40 days after the event read

“On Thursday, 1st of September 1977 at approximately 1:00am, I was on duty on my capacity as a police women when I received a radio message to Green St., Enfield. I heard the sound of knocking on the wall that backs onto the next-door neighbours house. There were four distinct taps on the wall and then silence. The eldest son pointed to a chair, which was standing next to the sofa. I looked at the chair and noticed that it was wobbling slightly from side to side. I then saw the chair slide across the floor towards the kitchen wall. It moved approximately 3 or 4 feet and then came to rest”.

WPC Heeps was the only police officer to give a written statement, but not the only police officer to experience or be present during the phenomena, I think it would be worth trying to contact her colleagues now, before it is too late. As an external witness who was there right at the start when unidentified banging noises were suddenly joined by object movement phenomena, I think WPC Heeps testimony is important.

I find the minor variations over the years in how so she gave her statement more indicatives of truthful testimony than a made up story as well; however I have one caveat.

There is a tendency to rate “trained observers” as more reliable than others in terms of testimony. WPC Heeps seems to have no motive as an outsider to lie to us; I hesitate however to believe that because she was a policewoman she was any better equipped than anyone else to make accurate observations. Eyewitness testimony has been shown to be fallible by Loftus and many others; however these studies rarely dealt with the truly bizarre. One may fail to note an accurate description of a stage murder: however can one be sure the same rules apply when a kitchen chair moves unaided towards you in defiance of logic and physics? I don’t know!

My caveat is simply — don’t assume a police officer’s testimony is any more accurate than any other witness statement . Maybe, may be not. Depends on the person, the situation, and many other things.

If this scene happened now I would immediately think of the movie Poltergeist (1982): it is important to recognize this happened five years before that film came out, and the film drew from GLP’s This House is Haunted, not vice versa. (Likewise the name Gozer in Ghostbusters came from this case, not the other way round!)  I am inclined to think WPC Heeps description is highly accurate, but only because in one of the very few ‘paranormal’ experiences in my life I saw a coffee cup move in a very similar manner at a pub in Offchurch, Warwickshire in the mid-90’s. The vibration before the movement, the lifting and ‘flight’, are exactly what I an two others observed on that occasion. I was not aware to the best of my knowledge of the police officer’s statement before that date – I did not, perhaps surprisingly, read This House is Haunted properly until 2011.

Were there issues with the investigation? If so what?

Yes, of course. There are issues with any investigation. After a major police investigation the Home Office sometimes order a review to look over the case and see what lessons can be learned; the SPR did something similar with the Committee on Enfield under barrister and parapsychologist Mary Rose Barrington . Here we are fortunate; as well as the somewhat scanty reports in the literature, we have the at times almost confessional This House is Haunted, as well as the SPR review written by those unconvinced by the case.

It is clear that Grosse and Playfair were self critical; and there was a continual scrutiny by the press, and various sceptics and scientists who visited. In fact so many people visited Enfield at one time or another that I find it hard to imagine how more scrutiny could have been applied.

Of course I never went to the house: I was 8 years old the week it all began, and it was a decade later before I heard of the SPR, which I did not join until 1992. As such I freely admit my opinions are not worth much: in writing this I have drawn on notes from conversations in the period 1994 to 1996 with Maurice Grosse and Tony Cornell, who held very different attitudes to Enfield, and to the written sources.

I think it is fair to say that most of the SPR members who visited Enfield believed that some of the phenomena were genuine – and that the main investigators, who knew the family and case intimately and observed much of the phenomena first hand, Grosse and Playfair, were utterly convinced.

I think however that other members of the SPR who visited were far from convinced: they still however accepted that at the core the case had been genuine, at least that was my reading of Mary Rose Barrington’s position in the Enfield report. It was Mary Rose who first taught me that wonderful phrase of Renee Haynes, “the boggle threshold”. Some of the phenomena at Enfield fall close if not just over my boggle threshold: I find them hard to accept. I turn to the magisterial work of Gauld and Cornell, neither particularly impressed as I recall by Enfield, and I find by looking at the tables in their book Poltergeists that actually many of the phenomena are pretty normal for poltergeist cases.

So were there issues in the case? Yes, but one of the major ones seems to have been the reluctance of the SPR to fully commit to a full scale investigation. This is really a result of the actual constitution and set up of the SPR – it holds no corporate opinions, and members reflect all manner of beliefs. As such the opportunity was there to bring many perspectives on the case: but of course SPR members have jobs, families and lives outside of psychical research, and here Playfair and Grosse as relatively ‘junior’ members may not have had the back up they deserved.

Still that was because by the time other SPR members arrived on the scene, things had developed in to the more questionable latter stages of the case – the voice, the levitations, the pillow moving through the roof, etc. I can’t at this distance really tell you what happened: I do however think it highly dangerous, if not a little absurd, to privilege those critics who visited the house once over those who spent many months there like the journalist and Playfair and Grosse.

enfield2The two main objections I have heard are both directed at Maurice Grosse, no longer here to defend himself, but quite willing to do so, to court if necessary I feel, when alive.

The first is what I call the ‘Good Man’ critique – Maurice was a thoroughly decent fellow, who was genuinely moved by the appalling poverty and hard conditions the Hodgson’s endured. He therefore “helped out” financially, and also emotionally, becoming something of a surrogate father figure to the kids whose own father had left.

There are problems here; although the father had left the kids, he was in contact and visiting – and may well have been a kind and loving chap for all I know, though clearly the situation was distressing at some level. Secondly, while the family were poor, from the pictures and accounts they do not sound markedly more so than my own family when I was that age. Thirdly, while Maurice struck me as a kind fellow – he bought me dinner at an Italian restaurant a few times as I recall after SPR meetings – so did many other people – he was far from daft. I’m not convinced he was buying the kids presents on a regular basis, or helping out ot the degree where fraud was motivated by cash. I’ve never seen any hard evidence to suggest it anyway.

The second critique of Grosse is the “Bereaved” notion – like many people Grosse came to the SPR after an odd experience made him question if life after death was real, following the loss of his daughter Janet.

At the very end of This House is Haunted Playfair discusses how Grosse had come to wonder if Janet was somehow attempting to communicate through the case to him, but this may have been a slightly whimsical suggestion: I never came to know Maurice intimately, or even well – we were acquaintances at best, and I probably had just a handful of conversations with him after SPR meetings over dinner – but I do not recall him ever suggesting such a thing to me. He was however extremely critical of critics of the case, and he was overly defensive enough to put backs up I feel.

One such critic was Tony Cornell, that charming, and at time belligerent cynical old curmudgeon I came to admire greatly (and who did not speak to me for his last decade; the admiration was one way!). Tony was pretty direct in his critiques – he felt the girls played games, and played Maurice at times for a fool as I recall. Memory could be misleading me; but even Tony admitted there was a real case underlying what he was as tomfoolery and nonsense later on. Now I can’t be certain – more than twenty years have elapsed since Tony and I used to chain smoke outside SPR meetings and he delivered his marvelously well informed and often scathing critiques on all aspects of psychical research.

I thought Tony planned to write a book on Enfield – unless Investigating the Paranormal (2002) was the book in question, which doubtless gives his opinions on the case ( I have lent my copy to a friend so can’t check), I don’t know exactly what he was critical of.

This brings me back to where I started this section: the SPR could have supported Playfair and Grosse better than they did it; but the organisation was riven by internal politics. Lab based psi research was “in”, and about this time we see the beginnings of the renaissance in British Parapsychology that flowered at Edinburgh with the KPU under Bob Morris. Spontaneous cases were out of favour, and physical phenomena doubly so – poltergeists were plain unfashionable.

While Playfair and Grosse stayed with the SPR, by 1981 a sizeable number of members left to found ASSAP, an organisation with far more emphasis on spontaneous cases. Now of course Cornell and Gauld certainly had a strong interest in poltergeist cases, as did Mary Rose Barrington – so that was not the sole problem with Enfield – but generally the SPR were moving in a more “respectable” and scientific direction, and observational fieldwork may have been unwelcome in some quarters🙂 Playfair’s Spiritist beliefs may have also caused some raised eyebows.

To me, well I think the case was a triumph. Almost every avenue was explored, it was well documented, and from the beginning Playfair and Grosse put the families welfare slap bang at the centre of their agenda. They went above and beyond what could be expected in bringing in expert help, going to considerable efforts to help the family get Janet examined at the Mausdley Hospital by Dr Peter Fenwick and liaising with schools and social workers. There is an odd dynamic there – but that probably is best discussed elsewhere. Overall I think they did better as investigators than I could ever hope to, and their persistence diligence and courage did not harm in the long run, and may have helped the family greatly. I guess it depends partly on what you see the key responsibility of the investigator is: to me it is to help the family make sense of their experience, move on and get through it. `

Was there evidence that activity was faked?

Yes. Margaret Hodgson is on record as saying about 2% of the phenomena was the girls playing around, and Janet has admitted they cheated at times, but were always caught. One incident where fakery was detected is reported in This House Is Haunted – it involves them hiding a tape recorder, and discussing what they were doing while it continued to play. No teenager is that daft: they wanted to be caught there. There is another incident, where the girls were persuaded a journalist to confess – and immediately afterwards retracted their confession. I believe a newspaper story ran at the time with reference t the alleged confession – if so it would be interesting to see it. It certainly proves the girls were pliable and eager to please, but today, nearly forty years on, both insist the phenomena was genuine.

I was 12 in 1981, a couple of years later. Looking back on that period when some major changes in my life occurred, and I moved home and changed schools and lost most of my friends, well I have only the most fragmentary memories of it all. These were huge changes in my life, that massively effected me – but I can’t recall more than a few tiny snippets of that traumatic summer. I’m guessing the Hodgson girls struggle to recall 1977 the same way, and remember more odd bits, and what they have read and been told since. Does anyone really know what happened at this remove? Only the press coverage, radio interviews and recordings can bring it back; that and This House Is Haunted. Maybe even the sisters don’t know exactly what the truth is after forty years?

People say that although some of the activity may have been faked a lot was genuine? Do you believe that this is true? Why do you think people make this distinction?

There is no doubt some of the activity was faked – absolutely everyone involved with the case, from the sisters to the journalists to Grosse and Playfair accept that. The girls were 11 and 13 when it all kicked off; and they acted like teenagers anywhere. At first they were terrified, but soon they began to enjoy it all, and if I recall correctly Tony Cornell was particularly put off by the way he though Janet was loving every moment and endlessly amused by the investigators failure to get to grips with it.

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he get's the voice right I'm happy!

Timothy Spall looks nothing like Maurice in this scene from the drama; but of he gets the voice right I’m happy!

The more conservative SPR faction tended to think the later part of the case was faked: they accept some original simple poltergeist phenomena in most cases (though at least one SPR member who visited the house once would not allow even that, calling hoax). Maurice Grosse was perhaps the most open to all the phenomena – the journalists seems to suggest he was at times a little credulous, though actually I suspect Maurice may have been being kind, and giving the family the benefit of the doubt.

Once again forces are at work which are possibly not immediately obvious to those who have not spent some of their youth kicking around with the SPR. It might be partly political, but also there is a well establish SPR tradition dating back to the 19th century that once a medium or psychic claimant is caught in fraud, that is it, game over, they are totally discredited. If they cheat once, then nothing they do afterwards, no matter how spectacular, can be taken seriously. Eusapia Palladino fell victim to this – perhaps uniquely she was given a second chance, but it was well known she would crudely cheat as a psychical medium if not carefully controlled.

So when the SPR felt there was strong evidence the girls were playing around, that was it. The case was tainted – by the normal rules of play of almost a century it was time to pack up and go home. Except Grosse and Playfair didn’t – they persisted. In doing so so they went against the culture of the SPR, which was traditionally dismissive of those who practice “mixed mediumship”, that is sometimes cheated to “help along the phenomena”. I can’t also help wonder if there was a bit of a class divide here: this was 1977, and while Playfair had been in Brazil, and Grosse was a self-made man, most of the SPR probably inhabited a very different world to that of the council estate dwelling Hodgsons. However to be fair to the SPR, when I joined the Society just over a decade later the council estate dwelling CJ was welcomed and never encountered any class prejudice at all, indeed quite the contrary – I was embraced with enthusiasm for a few years before my being caught up in the fall out of an SPR intrigue led to my fall from grace and exile from the SPR for 15 years.

Anyway the question is not was anything faked; the question is how much? I could look at the phenomena and critically assess them, but at this remove it would be wasted words. I was not there!

What do you think might have been happening if there was activity that wasn’t faked?

I actually don’t know. I’m not at all sure. I suspect the phenomena were playing along with Playfair’s and Grosses expectations; they appear to be intelligent, elusive and quite unpleasant, but with art times a sense of humour – albeit a malicious one. I’d say it was a poltergeist, as it acted just like poltergeists have from China to Brazil for over a thousand years, and probably far longer. I don’t think the Hodgson’s would have known a lot about poltergeists, but Enfield had a case before I think, and certainly the Battersea poltergeist and other cases used to occasionally show up in the papers. I don’t know what was going on – I really don’t. I’ve read a lot, talked to everyone I could at the SPR at some point or another, and you know – I’m still little clearer. I believe the family were upset, had no strong motive for fraud, but yes I think fraud occurred at times. Still, you know what I’m going to say – I wasn’t there…

There are ways we could make an assessment. Grosse recorded 180 hours of reel to reel tape of Janet. That could be digitised and made available to researchers. The photographs could me made available in an archive not the handful published, any. The Radio 4 broadcast should be readily available. Someone should collect the recordings, clippings, and oral testimony from Playfair, Janet, Margaret and others. What about the scientific readings taken by Prof Hasted? The recordings by the guys from Pye? The testimony of sceptics like Christopher Milbourne and celebrity ventriloquist & sceptic Ray Allen? The SPR report. All of this could be published now, maybe with a few small redactions to grant the family some privacy. It is one such redaction that puzzles me the most – we hear time and again about the two daughters, but little about the sons. Yet while one son was away from the house apparently at boarding school, the other Johnny appears to have been present throughout. Yet he does not seem to ever appear, and like his brother has not chosen to speak as far as I know yet? Maybe he was too young to recall,and I have no desire to pry in to the familiy’s privacy further, but the boys seem curiously absent from the narrative…

Anyway I am puzzled as to why the materials gathered during the case are not preserved in the British Museum or some scientific institute, or even a university. They really should be, for posterity.

Would you have conducted the investigation in the same manner?

No. I would have done far worse😉

Do you have any other comments?

It’s taken me so long to write this I had best call it a night

So That’s was my response to Hayley. I don’t know if it was any use, or of any interest, but hey I tried. Feel free to comment, or email me at the usual address chrisjensenromer@hotmail.com

CJ x

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Has Simon Cowell a Poltergeist???


The Post Chronicle has a little story that really amused me, because it features the ever entertaining Simon Cowell. Recovering it seems from the Cherylgate Scandal  that dominated the British media earlier this Summer (Cheryl Cole got dropped from a US talent show – if you care about such things you doubtless followed it, if not like me, you have at least some idea I suspect!) he is in the States working on a new show. Here is the Post’s coverage, with as usual my comments…

Someone call the Ghostbusters! Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul a night in a haunted hotel in Dallas. Judge L.A. Reid checked out the same day he checked in because he reportedly got “spooked out.”

The judges were to stay at the Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa while they filmed auditions for the US version of ‘The X Factor.’ However, they had no idea that creepy ghosts live in the walls of the hotel.

Creepy ghosts? What do they do, watch you on in the shower?😉

I can think of lots of reasons people might check out of a hotel, but I imagine the Stoneleigh is a pretty upmarket kind of joint, so the story caught my attention. It certainly looks gorgeous.

A source told US Weekly Magazine, “L.A. didn’t even know the story of the ghosts; he just couldn’t be inside the hotel. He was first to check in and left before the others arrived, saying it had a ‘weird feeling about it.’ Everyone joked he was being a diva, but when they heard about the hotel really being haunted they just thought he was smart!”

So. L.A. departed early, feeling something wrong. Interesting, and good for him — I would not stay in a hotel if I had a really bad feeling about the room; but the fact he had mentioned it possibly set the stage for what happened next — Cowell et al experiencing “spooks”…

Paula on the other hand wasn’t so lucky. According to reports Paula’s bathroom water taps kept getting turned on and off by themselves. She was reportedly left scared by the experience.

A variation in water pressure, surely not unlikely in Dallas in the Summer, or air blocks, or — I dunno, ask the lads from T.A.P.S they are plumbers aren’t they?  Still I’m sorry Miss Abdul was upset by it.

Cowell experienced similar goings but enjoyed spending times with the ghosts. A source said that he really liked staying in the hotel and will probably try to stay in only haunted hotels in the future.

Cowell as always level headed. If he wants a list of purportedly haunted hotels in an area I can happily provide one. In fact the original source makes it clear that is NOT what he said. The anonymous source said they would not be surprised if he insisted in future on it, as hyperbole, to stress how much the incident had entertained him.

Simon Cowell; credit wikimedia

So normally I would ignore a trivial celeb gossip piece like this, but since the News of the World is dead I thought there was room for some sensational journalism, and I’d step in to their shoes. Now I’m not taking up phone hacking! What I actually wondered however sounds so bizarre and ridiculous that it would be worthy of that journal, if not the World Weekly News, National Enquirer  or The Onion.

What if  Simon Cowell has his own poltergeist?😉

Seriously, the idea is not as insane as it sounds. Poltergeist activity is associated according to mainstream parapsychological theories with people, not buildings: you have a poltergeist agent, around whom events cluster. That person serves as catalyst or medium for the phenomena, whatever the ultimate causes. They are completely unconscious of their role in the “haunting”, and it has often been suggested are less bothered by the events than others — like Simon in the above story? Often creative, intelligent and sometimes frustrated by obstacles preventing them utilizing their talents, they… OK, I’m not entirely serious!  But if anyone was a poltergeist agent, Simon Cowell strikes me as a good possibility. And I recall a little story from last Summer that I ran here on Polterwotsit on “Britains Got Poltergeists?”

Now all these unattributed sources are probably Cowell’s press office, or bored journo’s making up stories, who knows? But twice is either a) suggestive that Simon may be a ) unconsciously mediating recurrent spontaneous psycho-kinetic events or b) good at coming up with interesting stories to keep his name and how in the papers. I can’t quite decide which is more plausible…😉

Seriously though, assuming there was something to both stories, only Simon (or one of his crew) seems to be a common link.  I think the Dallas events can be put down to a) the plumbing b) the atmosphere caused by L.A. switching hotels based on his intuition and c) the fact events took place during a massive cloudburst and thunderstorm across the city, well I think we can safely say there was not much to it. If there was, well maybe Simon Cowell really is a poltergeist agent, which would be hilarious, and strangely scary — something like The Omen meets The Producers? Anyway, I shall watch future events with interest, and if Mr Cowell ever wants testing for ESP, in the words of the ghostbusters “we’re very discrete…”

cj x

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The Sweetshop Spook – Cardross, Dunbartonshire, Scotland


OK, I have been really busy lately so let us return to the 25th June and a story in the Daily Record

A SWEET-TOOTHED ghost has whipped up a storm in a teacup at a village cafe. The friendly “Casper” likes to move sweet jars and other goodies around the tearoom in the night.

Many many years ago an old friend of mine was called in to investigate a poltergeist at a chocolate manufacturers, way back in the early 1980’s. Rats turned out to be the cause! (And oddly enough a couple of years ago a care home where staff were frightened and contacted me also turned out to have a problem with the “rats in the walls”.  But even the most enterprising rodent does not heft around large sweet jars, so let us read on…

But the playful poltergeist sometimes makes an appearance during the day.

That poltergeist activity occurs during the day is of course no surprise, but appears? Um, let’s establish the facts as far as we can…

Laura McKirdy and her mum Fiona believe they are being haunted by an old lady dubbed Nanny Goony by folk in Cardross, Dunbartonshire.

Laura said: “I had just locked the door one evening when a jar of lollipops went crashing to the floor.

“I thought I’d just pick them all up in the morning but, when I came back, they were back in the jar and stood upright.

Well the obvious solution is someone else picked them up and put them back. Yet obviously Laura would have considered this possibility, and would hardly be attributing it to a ghost if she felt it likely. A second option is that she picked them up and put them back, and simply forgot. I know that sounds bats but I have often done things like this, then been surprised to find I have done a task when I return to do it later. But then I’m often quite bewildered,and can’t generalize from my crapness to to others.

Laura's Cafe, Cardross, from their Facebook page

Laura's Cafe, Cardross, from their Facebook page (linked). The cafe has since had a makeover apparently, but looks good to m anyway!

What is interesting is not the fall, but the replacement on the wall. One assumes the jar could have fallen for all kinds of perfectly mundane reason, but the tidying up the spill is a bit strange! Then again, there is another really odd but entirely possible scenario – that the jar did not fall in the first place, and was hallucinated, or that the fall happened some days before, resulting in someone else sorting it out, and Laura was mistaken as to the date. All these explanations strain credibility however, but then so do poltergeists!

Other spooky happenings include sweets moving on their own, pictures falling off the wall and crumbs appearing on newly wiped tables.

All very poltergeist, but all to my mind within the possibilities of simple misperception and natural causes. Those who read my 1996 JSPR piece will remember that I suggest that “ghost” may sometimes be an explanation that develops over time to explain a lot of “symptoms” that appear puzzling and bizarre, but when each of the “evidences” for the spook is examined in isolation, the whole picture may change, and instead it may just represent a series of mundane but entirely explicable events. Anyone who has been besotted with a girl or chap knows you start to notice their name more, spot their birthday, and generally become hyper-aware of things that remind you of  the object of your affections – at least I hope so or I am just a freak, it certainly happens to me. Or if you read Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus Trilogy, it may well be that you suddenly spot the number 23 absolutely everywhere, because 23 now stands out to you.

In many cases I think this occurs with ghost and poltergeist cases (the relationship between which will be a future article written with Becky, but you can here more on my thought about this at ASSAP’s Seriously Strange conference this September); a series of minor events that may well happen to all of us all the time and which are intrinsically puzzling become attributed to an entity, as we seek a causal relationship between what are probably events unrelated except by the fact they live in the category “mysterious happenings in our home”.

Note I’m not saying this happens all the time, and it certainly does not explain a large number of poltergeist cases I have read about, investigated or studied, but it may well explain some. The place for any ghost investigation to start is with each single incident, meticulously examined and recreated with the original witnesses present — exactly the kind of thing I can not do on a press review site like Polterwotsit. This is why I always  stress that I want to go and talk to the witnesses myself, or speak to them via the phone or email. I very rarely get the chance😦

Fiona said: “One time we heard the sound of legs moving under a table, but there was nobody there.”

This seems rather subjective, but I don’t work in a small cafe, so I may not instinctively recognize these things. Laura and Fiona probably have lots of experience of their cafe – they know what they are hearing, so I’ll take their word for it.

The cafe owners called in the Scottish Society for Psychical Research to investigate.

This is excellent news. I only really know Trish Robertson and Archie Roy, and I think Soapy Sam off the JREF attends meetings sometimes, but they strike me a level headed and intelligent organization.  The context makes it sound like this chap however is the SSPR reponse, which I don’t believe to be the case…

Paranormal expert Ron Halliday described the goings-on as typical poltergeist activity.

He said: “It could be that it is a trapped soul who is trying to send a message to the owners themselves.”

It could be. Or it could be all kinds of other things, and trapped souls are currently low on my lists of suspects. Still I will wait and see what transpires. The SSPR will do a good investigation.

Laura added:”She doesn’t seem to mean any harm. She’s a very friendly ghost – I wouldn’t stay here if she wasn’t.”

Well that is nice, and I think Laura has a very healthy attitude. I’ll do a follow up if anything emerges! I’d love ot hear more from anyone with actual first hand knowledge of the case.

References

Romer, The Poverty of Theory: Notes on the Investigation of Spontaneous Cases, JSPR, July 1996

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